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November 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 3

Gifted and Growing

A district's computerized adaptive testing approach revealed something unexpected—that the brightest students showed minimal growth.

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Teachers and school leaders who are committed to fostering growth for all students can bring about change in their classrooms. As superintendent of Joint School District No. 2 in Meridian, Idaho, I have witnessed many of those efforts firsthand. I have also discovered that by focusing the bulk of our time on the majority of students, we often fail to address the needs of a smaller but equally important group—the brightest and most gifted.
In a recent speech in Indiana, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings pointed out thatInformation is the key to holding schools accountable for improved performance among every student group. Data can inform decision making: Administrators can evaluate curricula, and teachers can adjust lesson plans. What gets measured gets done. (2005)
In Meridian, we have followed that same philosophy for more than eight years, with impressive results. Our district, which is on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho, comprises 27 grade schools, 5 middle schools, 4 high schools, and various high school academies. The district's student population approaches 30,000 and is rapidly growing, welcoming 2,000 new students this fall alone.
The district reflects the full spectrum of student capabilities, from students with special needs to academically gifted students. English language learners account for approximately 9 percent of the student population and speak a total of 58 different home languages. Eleven percent of students qualify for special education. Approximately 20 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. At the same time, Meridian is a relatively high-achieving district, traditionally scoring in the upper 70th percentile in standardized testing.
But as we discovered when we probed deeper into our testing scores in 1998, standardized tests are not a reliable gauge of the full range of student performance. Although such tests provide adequate data relating to midrange students, they fail to effectively measure students at the high and low ends of the ability spectrum. Information from the Northwest Evaluation Association's Growth Research Database, a large repository of longitudinal student achievement data, has substantiated our findings. Its data show that more than 20 percent of high-performing schools fall into the bottom quartile in terms of student growth.
According to Allan Olson (McCall, Kingsbury, & Olson, 2004), executive director and president of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA),High-performing students who are far beyond the proficiency levels don't have to demonstrate further growth under current governmental regulations. Today's method of identifying schools at risk may judge two schools with mostly proficient students as equally successful, even though at one school students are treading water, while at the other students are moving to superior performance.
To address these concerns, our district initiated new testing methods in 1998 by partnering with the Northwest Evaluation Association. The organization's tests are computerized and adaptive: When a student answers a question correctly, subsequent questions become more difficult, thereby alleviating student boredom; conversely, incorrect answers lead to easier questions, which helps allay frustration among less advanced students. Unlike traditional standardized tests, this kind of computerized adaptive test (CAT) immediately delivers quality data, enabling teachers to quickly refocus materials and curriculum as needed. Further, in addition to the traditional method of measuring a student's performance by comparing it with other students' performance, computerized adaptive testing tracks the growth of each student in specific subjects over time. In Meridian, this has resulted in more substantive and effective teaching. Our students now show strong, continual individual growth.
Following the new testing system's success in Meridian and elsewhere and a series of statewide hearings, Idaho contracted with the Northwest Evaluation Association to develop its state test: the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. In the fall, Idaho schools test grades 2–10 using the computerized adaptive test. In the spring, schools administer a blended version of a CAT and a fixed-form test aligned to grade-level content and achievement standards for grades 3–9, as required by No Child Left Behind.
When Meridian first implemented CAT in 1998, we were astonished to find that all the achievement growth occurring in the district was limited to the lowest-achieving groups of students. The more proficient students—not merely that small group called “gifted,” but the above-average, high-end learners—showed little or no growth.

The Right Balance

The primary culprit limiting growth among high achievers is the structure that traditional education imposes on schools. We put 30 or more 9-year-olds together, call it 4th grade, and start teaching. Of course, any class of 30 students will encompass a wide range of abilities. Historically, teachers have focused their efforts on the majority, offered special education students extra help, and left most higher-achieving students to fend for themselves, hoping that challenging library books or extra projects will sustain and motivate them.
This dilemma grows as schools try to meet government mandates and adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements. In 2002, the district's scores from Idaho's first “blended” test showed that 86–94 percent of our student population demonstrated proficiency. However, AYP requirements would force us to focus primarily on the needs of students who had not hit proficiency standards—as few as 6 percent of students in some schools. That could leave a full 94 percent of students unchallenged and receiving less instructional attention. Many of these students would make no academic growth and would, in fact, be left behind.
Although we support accountability and the intent of No Child Left Behind, we also believe that we must strike a balance to meet the education needs of all students on the basis of quality data. According to Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, the key to ensuring accelerated student growth is consistent, ongoing assessment of students, with real-time information passed along to teachers who have procedures in place to act on the data.
Growth data from the assessments showed that we needed to make substantial procedural changes in our supposedly high-achieving district if we were to address the needs of all students.

Embracing Change

Using the assessment data that the Idaho Standards Achievement Test gathered in the fall and spring has resulted in significant improvements in our curriculum and instruction. The assessment data suggested that our curriculum tended to focus on what students already knew and could do. We weren't teaching deeply enough, and students weren't getting enough meaningful information. To overcome this weakness, we embraced a concept-based curriculum, which we developed between 1996 and 1998. The new curriculum teaches big ideas and enduring understandings, enabling students to apply their knowledge at a much deeper level.
For example, when 5th grade students study the American Revolution, it is much more important that they grasp a broad understanding of the concept of revolution—what revolution is and what it means—than memorize the typical slew of dates and proper names. They can transfer that understanding when they study the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, or revolutions occurring today. They can build on and apply what they have learned.
The district also shifted to leveling, or flexible grouping, in individual classes and within and across grades. Unlike traditional tracking, which brands students with a certain ability level and keeps them consistently in that track, flexible grouping is fluid and based on ongoing assessment data. Before the district had flexible groupings, teachers had difficulty meeting the various needs of all students. If teachers focused on the average student, they inadvertently held back higher-achieving students; if teachers taught more advanced concepts to the entire class, they might leave the less proficient behind. We now look at student data in language, reading, and math and regularly group and regroup students according to skill level in those areas.
Joe Yochum, principal of Lowell Scott Middle School, explains the benefits of the approach:By leveling our students, we achieved two things. First, kids in the lower tier showed substantial growth, did exceptionally well, and some even brought their scores up to proficient. Second, our more advanced students really took off in terms of growth and proficiency.
The district's first effort to provide expanded opportunities for advanced students came in mathematics. Examining the initial year's CAT data, the district identified 150 students coming into 6th grade who had already demonstrated mastery of 6th grade math. Rather than forcing these students to take 6th grade math, the school created a mathematics fast track—pre-algebra in 6th grade, algebra in 7th grade, and geometry in 8th grade.
Schools throughout the district now offer accelerated math. Most of the elementary schools now offer pre-algebra—some even offer algebra. If a 4th grader is ready for pre-algebra, that's what he or she takes. Statistics substantiate the program's success: Of the 310 6th graders entering Lowell Scott Middle School this fall, 100 qualified for the accelerated math program, compared with just 45 of the 400 incoming 6th graders in 1999, the initial year of the accelerated program. The district has also significantly increased the number of students enrolled in high-end math at the high school level. For example, this year the number of students taking AP Statistics at one of our high schools has tripled.
Teachers and principals recognize the importance of the data they receive from the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. According to Barbara Horn, principal of Andrus Elementary School,I can look at any of my kids and tell you where their strengths and weaknesses are, on the basis of the assessment data. It's a powerful tool we're able to use to direct instruction, especially for gifted kids.
Today, most of the 27 grade schools in Meridian use flexible grouping, and students are showing impressive growth. According to analyses conducted by the Northwest Evaluation Association, Meridian is among the highest growth-producing districts in the United States. Now, a 9-year-old student no longer spends the entire day in 4th grade. He or she may be working above grade level in math—taking algebra, for instance—and then be working below grade level in reading or language arts.

Encouraging Growth

In the past, the district relied on the traditional method of placing advanced students in a gifted and talented center one day a week, then returning them to their regular classrooms for the rest of the week. But the truth is, a gifted student is gifted all week long. The genesis for the district's self-contained gifted and talented program came when teachers discovered that their higher-achieving students who scored high in the fall, particularly in reading, failed to meet expected growth targets as measured by the spring test. Worse, some of these students even regressed in skills.
The new gifted and talented model affords parents the opportunity to place their child in a classroom where all the students are gifted and talented. Although the curriculum mirrors the district's and aligns with the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, the students in the program have progressed much faster than the general student population. The challenging curriculum includes group projects, individual assignments, in-depth research, and reading geared toward higher ability levels. The library used additional funds to add more advanced reading selections.
This year, we have six gifted and talented classes at the elementary level and a modified program in middle school that offers accelerated classes in language arts, social studies, math, and science. In some of these classes, 90 percent of students met their growth targets. Next year, we plan on adding more gifted and talented classrooms to expand choices for families.

A Clear Road to Achievement

Using the fall Idaho Standards Achievement Test data, which teachers receive within 24 hours of test completion, teachers sit down with each student to review how he or she scored and then help the student choose areas to focus on and set growth targets. For example, a 5th grader who qualified for the 6th grade accelerated pre-algebra class set learning goals that included such skills as using data provided in graphs and tables to solve problems and writing equivalent forms of algebraic expressions. This instructional focus also provides parents with a clear picture of their child's expected growth.
According to Joe Yochum,The district now gets positive feedback from parents who say, “Finally my child is being challenged, rather than becoming bored and tuning out.” Our students provide proof of success. Our 7th grade achievement status report shows that in our gifted and talented literature program, more than half the kids met or exceeded their target for last year.
Now that they can teach to specific instructional needs, teachers believe they are making a difference to their students. Because they have the data they need to identify specific skill levels, they can move students forward at the necessary pace and meet the needs of both low and high achievers. The district now offers extra assistance for teacher training and support coaches.
The breadth and quality of the data that we receive has enabled us to take a more realistic view of our education system. The district now sees the fallacy in the long-held belief that the brightest students can progress and thrive on their own. We realize we need to challenge them, just as we challenge their low- and average-performing peers. Our district's goal is growth for all students.

McCall, M. S., Kingsbury, G. G., & Olson, A. (2004, April). Individual growth and school success. Lake Oswego, OR: Northwest Evaluation Association. Available:

Spellings, M. (2005, June 14). Seeing the data, meeting the challenge. Prepared remarks for Secretary Spellings at the Indiana High School Summit: Redesigning Indiana's High Schools. Available:

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